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I thank Members from all parts of the House for their contribution in helping the Bill to reach this stage, following the pre-legislative scrutiny that the right hon.
Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) so ably led. The House will recognise that there are the most demanding constraints on Bills this Session because of the shortage of time, but even with them the Public Bill Committee managed to debate the Bill, the amendments, most clauses on stand part, the vast majority of new clauses and several issues that were new to the original Bill. That in itself was a real achievement.
I am particularly grateful for the skill with which those who chaired the Committee-the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)-steered the Bill's debate. I thank also the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) for their constructive scrutiny of the Bill and the part that they and their colleagues played in bringing us to this point.
Nia Griffith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Bill has been one of the most outstanding examples of co-operation with a devolved Administration? The co-operation started at the very beginning: it was not a bolt-on; it was an integral part of the whole discussion.
Many organisations have also been involved in helping us as a House to get the Bill right, and I place on the record our gratitude to them. I single out the religious groups, scout groups and others, whose very strong views on the unfairness that they faced in effect created clause 43, which allows for concessionary charges to be put in place for community groups. The truth is that theirs was an extremely doughty campaign. It was well argued, they were very forceful and they had an enormous effect for one simple reason: they had a really good point about their circumstances. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who had said throughout that we would find a way of sorting out the situation one way or the other, was as good as his word, and the Bill is proof of that, because it now safeguards community and religious groups against unaffordable increases in their surface water drainage charges.
Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): On dialogue and continued dialogue, I must note that, although we are happy that the Bill, as successful as it is, has reached this stage, this is not the end of the story. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) knows from his work in Keswick and west Cumbria that we have to maintain that effective dialogue with communities to ensure that we get not only this legislation right, but future legislation absolutely perfect.
Hilary Benn: I agree, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in his constituency. All Members representing Cumbria have done such work in very difficult circumstances, and I shall say a word more about that a little later. The Bill demonstrates that we have listened and responded. If legislation needs fixing or sorting, our duty is to ensure that we have the means to do the job, and Parliament should respond. That is exactly what we are doing with this Bill.
To conclude the thanks that I wanted to express, I turn to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. His hard work and commitment, and his open way of doing business, if I may so describe it, has won respect and friends in equal measure in all parts of the House. He has led the Bill through Committee and Report with considerable skill and determination, and great knowledge. Everybody involved, including me, is extremely grateful to him for the fact that we now have the Bill before us in such good shape.
Our discussions in Committee and on Report have made a good Bill better and stronger, with significant changes having been made since it was first published. That shows that we have listened to those inside and outside the House as it has been scrutinised. I want to touch on some of those changes. First, there is the new clause agreed in Committee on building regulations and flood resistance, which amends the Building Act 1984. As the House will know, Sir Michael Pitt recommended revising the building regulations to ensure that all new or refurbished buildings in high flood-risk areas are flood-resistant or resilient. Powers in the Building Act allow regulations to be made to cover flood resilience or resistance for new buildings or for major alterations, but they do not allow similar provisions to be made for most types of minor repair work. A practical example is the replacement of flood-damaged plaster with a more resilient plaster. Extending, through this new clause, the scope for which building regulations can be made will enable us, if appropriate, to regulate so that flood resilience or resistance measures are required when a building is being repaired. That prepares the way for implementing recommendation 11 of Sir Michael Pitt's hugely influential report into the floods of the summer of 2007.
At this stage, I would like again to place on record, on behalf of Members in all parts of the House, my thanks to Sir Michael Pitt for an outstanding report, for the way in which he went about his work, and for the fact that he did exactly what I asked him to do in the wake of the 2007 floods, which was to identify what lessons needed to be learned. As the House will know, we have not waited to get on with implementing several of his recommendations, some of which required legislation. This Bill is proof that we have listened to what he had to say and made good progress in acting on it.
Secondly, we have the new clause that helps to tackle the problem of bad debt in the water industry, which was raised on Second Reading. The new clause was tabled after those concerns were aired following the publication of Anna Walker's final report on the review of charging for household water and sewerage services. The new clause requires the owner of a property that is occupied by persons other than the owner to ensure that details of the occupier are given to the water and sewerage company. Should they fail to do this, the owner becomes jointly and severally liable for the bill
payment, along with the occupier. The provisions added to the Bill will allow water and sewerage companies to identify the bill payers who are liable and to pursue them for debt if they leave a property without having paid their bills. Ultimately, the benefit will be felt not only by the water companies but by all paying customers, who currently subsidise those who do not pay their bills by about £12 per household per year. This is therefore a very practical change.
Today, on Report, we have agreed to add to the Bill new clause 22 on the subject of social tariffs, about which a lot of hon. Members feel very strongly. The new clause, which is, again, very practical, will ensure that Ofwat does not rule out schemes brought forward by water companies on the grounds that those schemes introduce new cross-subsidies for other customers. Such schemes could potentially give badly needed help to those who are in the severest financial difficulty. We also tabled several Government amendments, almost all of which directly responded to debate in Committee where my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that he would consider issues further or responded to representations from other stakeholders. They include, first, measures to make the scope of the water infrastructure provisions clearer, for example to allow for retendering or for projects to be split. Secondly, there is a measure to make the duty on local authorities to investigate flooding less burdensome, because in Committee fears were expressed about local authorities having to do a whole range of things. The position on that will be clarified. Thirdly, we have made the hosepipe ban provisions wider, adding to the two uses of them that were originally identified. Fourthly, we have made the compensation and appeals provisions more comprehensive, particularly in relation to designated assets. There is now to be a comprehensive right of appeal, which I am sure will be widely welcomed.
We have just discussed the process for the approval of sustainable drainage systems, and we have made clearer the provisions on the protection of them once built. We have fitted together the timetables for the approval of SUDS and the granting of planning permission, and we have ensured that we protect SUDS by making it absolutely clear that if somebody digs up or affects them in the course of doing other work, they will have to repair them. Finally, we have made much more explicit the need for landowners to be consulted when risk management authorities use their new environmental powers. With those changes, the Bill will be even better.
On Second Reading, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) has just reminded the House, we all had in mind the then recent events in Cumbria and the terrible impact that they had on the people, businesses and homes of that community. For many, it will take a very long time to recover. I pay tribute to all those who have worked very hard to provide support as people recover from the terrible impact of that night, such as the local authorities, neighbours who have helped neighbours and local communities.
The Environment Agency recently reminded us that the 2007 floods, which were where the Bill began, cost us more than £3 billion. That is a clear indication of the serious impact that flooding has and why it is right that we have taken all the steps that we have since then to protect more people. As the House will know, we have invested more money in flood defence, so more homes are protected than at the time of the 2007 floods. We
have taken practical steps to provide support for property-level flood protection where it is not possible to have a flood defence scheme, and we have learned lessons about how the emergency services work. I must say that they did a pretty good job in 2007 and certainly a very good job in the recent Cumbria floods, as any Member who was there will attest.
As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said at the end of the Committee stage less than two weeks ago, we know that we need to be better prepared for more extreme weather in future. This is an incredibly important Bill, and it has received cross-party support and is eagerly awaited outside Westminster because it will take the further practical steps that are required to ensure that we are better prepared and protected in the years to come when large quantities of rain fall out of the sky.
The Bill will put in place new responsibilities on upper-tier local authorities to lead in dealing with surface water flooding of the type that we saw in Hull and Sheffield in 2007. As a society, we have come to learn that if we pave, tarmac and concrete over all our towns and cities and huge amounts of rain fall, it will be difficult for the water to flow away. We are therefore saying to upper-tier and unitary authorities, "You now have responsibility for bringing people together to work out where the water can flow". They must consider whether they can minimise the problem in future through work on sustainable urban drainage and through implementing the change that we have made to require planning permission if people wish to pave or tarmac over their front gardens. That is a very practical step, as is giving the Environment Agency overall responsibility.
For all those reasons, I am confident that both this House and the other place, where the Bill will now go into the capable care of my noble Friend Lord Davies of Oldham, will want to see the Bill reach the statute book. We have made good progress so far, and this was the right Bill to bring forward now. I commend it to the House.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I thank Members on both sides of the House for their examination of the Bill and the improvements that they made. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) for all her work on behalf of the Conservatives both in Committee and on Report, and I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the Minister's work. He conducted proceedings in Committee and on Report in the same constructive manner as he did those on the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which is much appreciated-it facilitates the passage of better legislation. As they sit here at this late hour, I also thank Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials for their work behind the scenes, which is often unappreciated.
There is a great deal of agreement on the Bill across the House. Eighteen months after the Pitt review, it is essential that we make the changes needed to protect people and communities from floods and their aftermath. As the Secretary of State rightly said, the recent Environment Agency report into the 2007 floods reminded us of their huge financial impact-more than £3 billion-and there were thousands of cases of personal suffering, with people losing possessions, property and, in the
very worst cases, their lives. Those problems are not going to go away; indeed, there is plenty of evidence that they could get worse.
We are all well aware that this will be a short parliamentary Session-perhaps the Secretary of State knows exactly how short, perhaps not-and we have been pleased to co-operate to help ensure that the Bill makes it on to the statute book before the general election is called. As I said on Second Reading, it is a pity that we were unable to include some important water industry measures because of the shortage of time, and we will need to return to them in the future.
Despite the general consensus, we remain concerned about a few measures in the Bill, and we hope to work constructively to address them in the other place without impeding its passage. At the heart of the elements of the Bill relating to flooding are oversight powers given to the Environment Agency. The national strategy created under the Bill will be a comprehensive document setting out the overall approach to be taken. That is welcome, but we must guard against an over-centralising approach that leaves too little discretion to local authorities, and that does not empower them to implement the measures they consider most appropriate. The assurances given in Committee that the national strategy would not be too centralising and that it would allow for such discretion were welcome, but we would like the Government to be clearer that they are not offering hostages to fortune by refusing sensible changes that would clarify the relationship between the national and local strategies. We must also ensure that concerns about the accountability of Environment Agency decisions are addressed.
Some issues relating to the automatic right to connect remain. Sewer flooding is one of the most unpleasant forms of flooding that people can experience. If the Bill can be improved so that incidences of that can be reduced, it should be so amended. It should also be amended so that sewerage systems that do not meet the required standards, or that risk causing flooding elsewhere, are excluded.
The Secretary of State today added a new clause to allow social tariffs. Affordability is a significant and growing problem in the water industry, and with one in six customers complaining of unaffordable bills, it needs addressing. That is a concern on both sides of the House. We welcome the work done by Anna Walker in her review, but that package of measures needs consultation and a formal response from the Government rather than a piecemeal approach. It is important that there is a full assessment of those proposals, including proper consultation with the industry, the regulator and consumer groups.
As I said on Second Reading, we have proposed a White Paper for the industry to set out a direction of travel and draw together the various strands of thinking currently going on, which would focus heavily on the problems of affordability. This would provide a clear strategy, and necessary certainty, for the water industry. I continue to believe that that is the right approach, enabling a holistic package of measures for water management.
It may very well be the case that the introduction of cross-subsidies is a suitable way of dealing with the problems of affordability. After all, there is now cross-party support for action to deal with problems in relation to
charging community groups for surface water drainage, as the Secretary of State pointed out. However, Ofwat has in general been working to unwind cross-subsidies, while today's new clause allows for new ones. We need further debate and clarity about the implications for all customers, and the potential effects need to be transparent. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) argued, with typical cogency, we are in danger of requiring very poor households to be subsidised by the only slightly less poor. Late-tabled clauses on Report are not the way to consider this issue properly.
Hon. Members of all parties are concerned about the issue of insurance and the way in which properties can be affected by flood risk. There was insufficient time to consider properly new clause 14, tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), which focused on the problem of homes that have not been flooded but have nevertheless been hit by raised insurance premiums. New clause 14 bore similarities to our new clause 11, and we are sympathetic to these concerns and happy to work with the Government and the Liberal Democrats to see how the issue can be addressed in the other place.
This Bill was introduced in the aftermath of the Cumbrian floods, which dominated the news before Christmas. Two months on, only a handful of families are back in their homes, with more than 1,000 houses still empty. Most will not be able to return until May. It is essential that the people of Cockermouth, Workington and the surrounding area are not forgotten, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said. We should constantly be reminded of people who remain homeless as a result of flooding, wherever it occurs, so that we are spurred to action to get them back in their homes as soon as possible, and so that we remain mindful of future risks. That is why we proposed amending the Bill, in line with the Pitt report, to introduce a requirement on the Secretary of State to give regular updates on the recovery process, and we hope that the Government will respond favourably when we raise that point again in the other place.
We failed to reach consideration of amendments about reservoirs, and there are concerns that provisions in the Bill on inspection may be unnecessarily onerous for small reservoirs in agricultural areas and for golf courses, where there is no risk to public safety. We want to ensure that regulation is proportionate and that reservoirs that pose no risk are not caught unnecessarily. We shall return to that issue in the other place.
As I have said, this is a much-needed Bill and we support it. Members on both sides of the House agree on the importance of reducing the risks of flooding and making changes to our national and local response to incidences of flooding when, regrettably, they occur. We are committed to playing our part in enabling the passage of this legislation and I am sure that the other place, while maintaining the rigorous scrutiny that is its time-honoured and important role, will also be mindful of the need to see this Bill reach the statute book.
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